Editorial: Drug War Casualties; ACLU Report Assesses the Damage

Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Northern New England, which generally regards itself as a pretty enlightened place, suffered a blow to its self-esteem recently when the American Civil Liberties Union reported that neither Vermont nor New Hampshire is immune from the pattern of racial profiling that emerges from data on marijuana possession arrests over the last 10 years.

The fact that nationally blacks are nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession — both groups use the substance at roughly equal rates — served to highlight the larger finding of the ACLU’s The War on Marijuana in Black and White: The war on drugs has been a failure in every conceivable sense. It has had no noticeable effect on drug use; it has diverted police resources from more pressing law-enforcement matters; it has been hugely expensive; and it accounts for a significant portion of the ridiculously high number of people incarcerated in U.S. prisons. The fact that black Americans are paying a disproportionately high price for this ill-conceived and futile war makes its continued prosecution all the more disturbing.

A decade’s worth of crime data shows that the marijuana-possession arrest rate for blacks in Vermont was close to the national average, and in New Hampshire better than the national average but, at 21/2 times that of the white arrest rate, still unacceptably unequal.

Not everybody agreed about how to interpret the data. Robert Sand, who made many of the same points about the failings of drug policy during his 15 years as Windsor County state’s attorney, was skeptical about what the data said about racial profiling in the Twin States, where blacks are a tiny minority. Noting that Windsor County was likely to experience only a handful of arrests of blacks on marijuana possession charges in any given year, Sand told Valley News staff writer Mark Davis that he was unsure whether there were sufficient data to be statistically significant.

That prompted Vermont Human Rights Commission Director Karen Richards to express concern about ignoring the report’s findings on profiling.

“Dismissing (the disparate arrest rates) out of hand is not a good idea,” she said, “because that sends a message that there’s not a lot of people of color in the state, so why should we care?”

Actually, Richards seems to be missing Sand’s rather innocuous and indisputable warning about the unreliability of small data sets for establishing trends. Richards might have more persuasively made her point by citing the ACLU’s rather striking finding about the near-universality of racial bias in marijuana arrests: “These glaring racial disparities in marijuana arrests are not a Northern or Southern phenomenon, nor a rural or urban phenomenon, but rather a national one. The racial disparities are as staggering in the Midwest as in the Northeast, in large counties as in small, on city streets as on country roads, in counties with high median family incomes as in counties with low median family incomes. They exist regardless of whether blacks make up 50 percent or 5 percent of a county’s overall population. The racial disparities in marijuana arrest rates are ubiquitous; the differences can be found only in their degrees of severity.”

In other words, no matter how limited the statistics about black arrest rates in New Hampshire and Vermont might be, there’s no reason to expect they would be different from any other region in the country.

The report, which commendably goes beyond the raw data and analysis to include personal stories of a few lives ruined by drug arrests, is as succinct and convincing an argument against current drug policy as we’ve encountered. It’s worth reading (www.aclu.org/files/assets/aclu-thewaronmarijuana-rel2.pdf) if only to confirm the wisdom of the Vermont Legislature’s decision to decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot and to raise questions about when New Hampshire will come around to calling for retreat from a war that’s not only doing more harm than good, but inflicting a disproportionate share of the damage on one group of people.